The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Lifestyle

September 26, 2011

Alabama Shakes: Local group’s soulful sound shaking up music scene

The band Alabama Shakes is about all sorts of things. From love to loss, heartache to healing, its sound is about the human condition and it’s steeped in pure raw emotion.

The sound has been called rock “with a whole lot of soul” and it’s been taken, then, shaken with country, roots and blues to form a unique and electrifying sound.

For lead vocalist Brittany Howard their making music is about understanding and just being honest.

“It is hope for a better tomorrow,” Howard said. “Forgetting your past and healing. A chance at just feeling relaxed.”

Guitarist Heath Fogg agrees. “I don’t think we set out to do it, but there is definitely a theme of hope in our music.”

It’s hope and that soulful way of looking at things that intrigue fans across the world and recently brought the homegrown group into the limelight.

Alabama Shakes, formerly just The Shakes – they had to change their name due to some legality issues, are a band grown straight out of the fertile soil of Limestone County.

“It was humble beginnings for everyone,” Howard said.

Howard, Fogg and Zac Cockrell all attended East Limestone High School. They were in different grades, but all knew of each other.

“I knew Zac,” Fogg said. “We grew up on the same street.”

“And I knew who Heath was,” Howard said. “He played in the only band at our school. I thought they were awesome and I would go see them all the time.” She remembers wishing she could be in a band like that. That band was Tuco’s Pistol.

Howard and Cockrell had been making music together  for years when they met their soon to be drummer Elkmont native Steve Johnson at the only music store in town — Railroad Bazaar. “We got to talking,” Howard said. “It was like — here’s our drummer.”

The three set out making music together and would catch Tuco’s Pistol any chance they got.

“Steve let me hear a demo,” Fogg said. “It was great. It was killer dealer as we say.” So, Fogg asked if they wanted to open up for one of his band’s shows. 

 They obliged thinking it would be a one-time deal.

“They asked me and another guy in the band if we would fill in on guitar,” Fogg said.  “I’ve been hanging out ever since.”

“When we did that show we didn’t expect to keep doing shows,” Howard said. “It was something that just happened.”

Alabama Shakes’ first gig was at The Brick in Decatur in May 2009.

“We started playing covers by Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC,” Howard said. “We play a lot of deep cuts most people know. We just played stuff that they wanted hear — stuff we wanted to hear.”

But, there have always been originals. “That was our point from the get go,” Howard said.

According to Cockrell, the group sits around bouncing ideas off one another. “It’s fun to watch it grow,” he said. “It turns into something you fall in love with.”

The group credits other bands for sharing their sound. “Especially in a place like Athens where another band would hear you play and ask you come play somewhere else,” Howard said.

She credits Tuco’s Pistol for getting their foot in the door. “They got us in venues and those venues wanted us back,” she said.

There’s no doubt the Alabama Shakes have made a name for themselves. Countless entertainment and industry blogs and websites have blown up recently with stories about the band and not only in the United States , but half a world away in the United Kingdom and France. They’ve been spotlighted by writers for the Guardian in the United Kingdom and NPR.

Howard said she received a call from Justin Gage with Aquarium Drunkard, a Sirius radio show, asking to write an article. “I said sure,” she said. “I didn’t know he had like 8,000 readers per day and 20,000 listeners on his station.”

She added a lot of people got a hold of their music after that. “It spread,” she said. “That is incredible to me. One day you’re asleep. The next day someone from France calls to tell you they like what we’re doing.”

When asked when it finally set in, Howard replied, “A few days ago I went to the gym and thought to myself is this real? Is this happening? I’m just waiting for the bottom to drop out.”

“It’s weird,” Fogg said. “It’s like nothing is happening, but a lot is happening. You got to celebrate the little things. We just keep working hard.” Working hard is exactly what the Alabama Shakes are doing when it comes to a debut full-length album that is just about ready to go. A few independent labels have been knocking on their doors. They are unsigned.

They’ve also kept busy writing and recording new songs and playing gigs across the South. The group recently opened three shows for the Drive-By Truckers, a well-known rock band from the Shoals whose front man is Patterson Hood.

Alabama Shakes songs “You Ain’t Alone” and “Hang Loose” continue to spark interest and the band continues to get together at Cockrell’s twice a week to practice and come up with new ideas. They used to practice on the square in Athens. “Different location, same situation,” Howard said.

Playing music is what they are driven to do and they remain humble. All work full-time jobs to make ends meet.

They are thankful for all their fans.

Alabama Shakes members agree playing in front of a crowd has to be the best thing about being in a band.  They continue to encourage others to support all local music. “We try to support each other as much as we can,” Cockrell said. “There’s a lot of cool bands from this area who have been good to us.” 

“When a band makes the cover of The Rolling Stone, they’re your new favorite band, but everyone starts in their hometown,” Cockrell said.

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